Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/July 1881/The Phenomena of Death
By THOMAS D. SPENCER, M. D.
THERE seems to be no subject from which the mind so instinctively shrinks, few thoughts more repellent to the soul, and no dread vision of the night, howsoever fantastic it be, that presents to the imagination so formidable an aspect as that of death. Indeed, with this all nature seems at variance. The English ivy creeping over fallen ruins, or the fresh moss covering the prostrate trunk of some forest oak, seems as if endeavoring to hide from view the havoc which death has made. Beyond the merely instinctive desire to exist, the dread of death is a matter of education. Never does the child forget his first sight of a corpse; the darkened chamber, the storm of grief, the white face and rigid features, all combine to form an indelible impression on the mind.
It is probably the extensive paraphernalia attending the funeral of the present day that render death so formidable. In war—on the battle-field, where death assumes its most sanguinary aspect—the mind of the soldier, from constant association, becomes so inured, that it ceases to be impressed with natural terror, and death seems but another foe to be met and conquered. Although the consideration of this topic be repugnant to the naturally healthy mind, there come times in the life of every individual, that might be termed periods of self-consciousness, during which the mind brushes aside the more vulgar affairs of life, and grapples with the awe-inspiring mysteries of death. As these phenomena are considered one after another in their manifold aspects, the mind, owing to the association of ideas, becomes involved in such an intricate labyrinth of thought, that, after wandering here and there, vainly endeavoring to solve the problem of death, it gives it up as a hopeless conundrum.
It is our purpose to discuss, as briefly as possible, some of the most important aspects of dissolution.
Addison said that there was nothing in history more imposing than, nothing so pleasing and affecting as, the accounts of the behavior of eminent persons in their dying hours; and Montaigne remarks, while speculating on death, that of all the passages in the annals of mankind those which attracted and delighted him most were the words and gestures of dying men. "If I were a maker of books," he continues, "I would compile a register with comments of various deaths, for he who should teach men to die would teach them to live." There are three elements presented in this fear of death: First, the extinction of life's pleasures, interests, and hopes, to which the mind looks forward with a degree of apprehension, proportionate to the amount of happiness they are capable of affording. With the young and vigorous the loss of these animal enjoyments is contemplated with extreme misery; hence the custom, among the early Greeks, of bearing the lifeless body of youth to the funeral-pyre at the break of mom, "lest the sun should behold so sad a sight as the young dead." Second, the dread of the unknown future, also depending upon the nervous temperament. And, lastly, comes a fear more powerful than either, which is the dread of pain, inherent in nature. From time immemorial the actual moment of dissolution has been supposed to be accompanied by a throe of anguish known as the "death-agony." This is believed to occur at that moment when the spiritual and physical forces that have been so intimately blended for many years are torn asunder, the one to molder and decay, the other to take upon itself that new life beyond the ken of man.
This last element properly belongs to the physiologist, and as such we propose to consider it. Sir Francis Bacon, in one of his essays, published for the first time in the year 1577, gave to the world the following profound thought: "It is as natural to die as to be born, and to the little infant, perhaps, the one is as painful as the other." In profundity of thought and depth of research Bacon stepped in advance of his contemporaries, and lived in the future. Thus we find that, contrary to the generally received opinion of even this latter day, Nature evidently designed that the end of man should be as painless as his beginning.
At birth the babe undergoes an ordeal that, were be conscious. would be more trying than a most painful death; yet be feels it not. Born in an unconscious state, the brain incapable of receiving conscious impressions, bis entrance into this hitherto unknown world is accomplished during a state of oblivion, known as Nature's anæsthesia:
"Painlessly we come, whence we know not—
From the earliest period of human history death has been considered as necessarily accompanied by pain; so general is this belief, that the terms "death-agony," "last struggle," "pangs of death," etc., have been in almost universal use in every age and under all conditions of society.
Nothing could be more erroneous; the truth is, pain and death seldom go together—we mean the last moments of life. Of course, death may be preceded by weeks or even months of extreme suffering, as occurs during certain incurable diseases.
So exaggerated has been this notion that it has been considered an act of humanity to anticipate the "death-struggle" by violence; for ages it was customary among the lower classes* of Europe to hasten death by suddenly jerking the pillow from beneath the head of the dying, thus throwing the bead backward, straining the pharyngeal and thoracic muscles, rendering the respiration, already difficult, shortly impossible. A Venetian ambassador, in the time of Queen Mary, asserted that it was a common custom among the country-people to smother the dying by means of a pillow placed over the face, upon which leaned or sat the nearest relative. This was founded upon the pious belief that a short road was the best one. This custom was banded down from generation to generation, parents performing it for their children, and vice versa. But, perhaps, the saddest privilege ever allowed the near friends of a dying man, occasionally occurred during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, when through executive clemency in executions by hanging they were permitted to grasp the feet of the suspended criminal, and, by clinging to the extremities, precipitate their additional weight on the body, thereby hastening strangulation. It is needless to say that these theories are false in both conception and practice. Death is a physiological process, and like all other animal functions should be painless.
When the fiat of death went forth, Nature kindly provided an anaesthetic for the body. As the end of life draws near, the respirations become slow and shallow, interrupted now and then by a deep, sighing inspiration, as though the lungs were vainly endeavoring to throw off the palsy creeping over them. As the intervals between the inspirations grow longer, the blood becomes saturated with carbonic acid gas the same as that formed from burning charcoal, whose deadly fumes have so often aided the suicide to painlessly destroy life.
While the power of breathing is gradually failing, the heart, which is in close sympathy with the lungs, begins to contract with less force, propelling the blood only a short distance through its arterial channels, thus causing the extremities to grow cold.
The blood sent to the brain is not only diminished in quantity, but is laden with carbonic-acid gas, which, acting on the nervous centers, produces a gradual benumbing of the cerebral ganglia, thereby destroying both consciousness and sensation. The patient gradually sinks into a deep stupor, the lips become purple, the face cold and livid, cold perspiration (death-damp) collects on the forehead, a film creeps over the cornea, and, with or without convulsions, the dying man sinks into his last sleep. As the power of receiving conscious impressions is gone, the death-struggle must be automatic. Even in those cases where the senses are retained to the last, the mind is usually calm and collected, and the body free from pain.
"If I had strength to hold a pen, I would write how easy and delightful it is to die!" were the last words of the celebrated surgeon, William Hunter; and Louis XIV is recorded as saying with his last breath, "I thought dying had been more difficult."
That the painlessness of death is due to some benumbing influence, acting on the sensory nerves, may be inferred from the fact that untoward external surroundings rarely trouble the dying.
On the day that Lord Collingwood breathed his last, the Mediterranean was tumultuous; those elements which had been the scene of his past glories rose and fell in swelling undulations, and seemed as if rocking him asleep. Captain Thomas ventured to ask if he was disturbed by the tossing of the ship. "No, Thomas," he answered, "I am now in a state that nothing can disturb me more—I am dying; and I am sure it must be consolatory to you, and all that love me, to see how comfortably I am coming to my end." In the "Quarterly Review" there is related an instance of a criminal who escaped death, from hanging, by the breaking of the rope. Henry IV of France sent his physician to examine him, who reported that after a moment's suffering the man saw an appearance like fire, across which appeared a most beautiful avenue of trees. When a pardon was mentioned, the prisoner coldly replied that it was not worth asking for. Those who have been near death from drowning, and afterward restored to consciousness, assert that the dying suffer but little pain. Captain Marry at states that his sensations at one time when nearly drowned were rather pleasant than otherwise. "The first struggle for life once over, the water closing round me assumed the appearance of waving, green fields. . . . It is not a feeling of pain, but seems like sinking down, overpowered by sleep, in the long, soft grass of the cool meadow."
Now, this is precisely the condition presented in death from disease. Insensibility soon comes on, the mind loses consciousness of external objects, and death rapidly and placidly ensues from asphyxia.
In spite of the natural antagonism to death, a moment's reflection will show that it is as much a physiological process as life; the two terms are correlative, the degree of vital activity depending on the extent of molecular death occurring at the same time. Strange as the paradox may seem, without death we can not live: every thought emanating from the brain, every blow struck by the arm, is accompanied by destruction of nervous or muscular tissue. The bioplasmatic or living matter of Beal, which enters into the formation of every animal tissue, is constantly germinating into cells (the origin of all life), and as constantly passing into decay, their places being taken by other protoplasts, thus keeping up the "active dance of life."
This disassimilation or interstitial death occurs to such an extent, that Nature, in her wisdom, has provided excrementory organs for the purpose of removing from the system the effete material thus produced. Every living structure, after passing through certain stages of development, maturity, and finally retrogression, must come to an end. This may be but the ephemeral existence of some of the lower forms of fungi, which, born in the cool of the morning, die as the sun goes down; or, like the famous dragon-tree of Teneriffe, may outlast the Pyramids that keep watch by the Nile.
The last topic for consideration is the pseudopia of death, or visions of the dying. This subject, coming under the realm of mental science, properly belongs to metaphysics rather than to physiology. Various theories have been advanced to explain these phenomena, but they must remain as hypotheses at best, for they are not susceptible of demonstration. It is not an uncommon occurrence for the dying, after lying some hours in a semi-conscious condition, to start up suddenly, and, with glowing face, point eagerly to some object invisible to the bystanders, and with animated voice and gesture state that they behold the glories of heaven, or the familiar countenance of some friend long since dead.
The question naturally arises as to whether these visions are merely the fantasies of a disordered and fast-disorganizing brain; or are the dying actually permitted a momentary view of those mysteries hitherto unknown?
The traditions and superstitions of the past have led to a popular belief in the latter theory. Shakespeare expressed the sentiment of his day when he placed in the mouth of the dying Queen Katharine these words:
"Saw you not even now a blessed troop
Invite me to a banquet, whose bright faces
Science, with its iconoclastic hand, has swept away these pleasing fancies, and in their places has constructed a fabric founded on analogy. In the anæsthesia induced by chloroform, a condition is produced closely resembling that immediately preceding death (caused by the carbonic-acid poisoning), in which visions are constantly presented to the mind, the character of which depends upon the natural temperament of the individual. Thus it often occurs that a patient, when under the influence of chloroform, has beatific visions similar to those of the dying. It is my fortune to have at present a patient who invariably, when under the influence of chloroform, asserts that she sees angels hovering round her bed. The impression is so strong that she becomes much annoyed if the reality of these visions is disputed. The asphyxia produced by burning charcoal is ofttimes accompanied by disturbed fancies, similar to those preceding death, and the natural inference is that they are the resultant in both cases of one and the same cause. During the last moments of life, the mind gradually loses cognizance of external surroundings, and is rapt in self-contemplation. Though still in a semi-conscious condition, the weeping of friends and the voices of attendants fall upon dull ears. The eyelids are closed, the pupils slightly contracted, and rolled upward and inward. The dying man has forgotten the present, for he is living in the past. One by one the events of a whole life appear, its joys and sorrows, perchance long since forgotten, rise before him in startling distinctness, and then disappear in the swiftly moving panorama. The familiar faces of the friends of his youth are thrown upon the mental retina, their cheery voices reverberate in his ears, and the thought of meeting these friends in the near future is perhaps his last conscious impression. As this drowsiness creeps over the system, these images, molded from the past, become as realities to the disordered imagination. The germs from which originate these strange combinations have probably been lying dormant for years in the registering ganglia of the brain.
Dreams never surprise us, no matter how strange the scenery presented, or how great the violation of truth and reality: so it is in this last great vision of life. What wonder that a dream so vivid should be carried into action? The brain, with a convulsive effort, sends the message through the system, the muscles spring into activity, and the dying man, with outstretched arms, calls the attention of the awestricken bystanders to these fantasies of his own brain. Thus some pass away as though falling asleep; others with a sigh, groan, or gasp; and some with a convulsive struggle.
These death-bed visions are comparatively of frequent occurrence, and are generally accepted as realities. The theory which we promulgate, though not new, will naturally excite prejudice; but it is better to know the truth than to cherish a belief, however pleasing it be, founded on error.